In honor of Bastille Day, I have a confession:
I am a Francophile.
A few cases in point: my home and gardens are designed in the French tradition…and named Parterre. My favorite champagne is Clicquot, which just so happens to be my cat’s name, as well. I enjoy French style and sensibilities – especially in relation to our fair city, Newport. (As a matter of fact, this past December I had the privilege of speaking to the French Heritage Society in New York on this very subject.) Which leads me to today’s post spotlighting France, Newport and American history.
The inspiration? Newport’s latest French visitor. She is very impressive; beautiful to look at, with great lines and enchanting French style as well. She arrived with much fanfare, and is quite hale and hearty after a month-long promotional tour. Who, you ask? Juliette Binoche? Catherine Deneuve? No, I’m referring to the French ship, L’Hermione, which arrived in Newport Harbor on July 8th. The lines were long with admirers to see this stately replica of the original L’Hermione , the 3-masted, 32-gun frigate that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to America in 1780 during the American Revolution.
Some interesting notes about this majestic vessel, which is the largest and most authentically built Tall Ship in the last 150 years:
took over two decades to build
hull and masts were constructed from 2,000 French oaks
cost more than $20 million in French government and private funds
is sailed by a mostly volunteer crew of 74
each stitch in the 19 linen sails was sewn by a single sailmaker
involved about 400,000 wood and traditionally forged metal parts
took 31 days to cross the ocean
will visit 12 iconic American ports of the War of Independence
And most noteworthy, she contains two large barrels of Hennessy Cognac, both earmarked for charity auctions (the first barrel was auctioned for $150,000.) It is believed Hennessy’s Cognac was loaded onto the original L’Hermione.
When I think of France’s involvement in the Colonial War, I feel a debt of gratitude. For without that involvement, specifically that of Generals Lafayette and Rochambeau, Newport might sound a bit more…British, let’s say.
Let me ask – what were you up to when you were nineteen years old? Well, in 1777, when Lafayette was nineteen, he secretly, and against the wishes of the French government, sailed to America. Lafayette announced himself a volunteer and charmed himself into being commissioned a Major General(impressive, to say the least!) Over the course of the next year or so, Lafayette and Washington formed a deep bond – so much so that Lafayette became somewhat of an adopted son to Washington. After fighting at the Battles of Brandywine (where he was wounded) and Rhode Island, Lafayette returned to France in 1778. With focus, drive and stamina, he lobbied the powers-that-be, on behalf of the American cause, for two years.
“Welfare of America is bound closely to the welfare of all humanity. She is to become the honored and safe asylum of Liberty.”
Thanks to Marquis de Lafayette, King Louis XVI agreed to send significant and well-equipped military force to America. L’Hermione was part of a total fleet of 32 transports, seven ships of the line, two frigates, and two smaller warships, with crews totaling about 7,000 sailors, which set sail from Brest in northwest France for Rhode Island. This support helped turn the tide of the American Revolution.
Now, let’s bring in our lovely City-by-the-Sea. Newport is where Lafayette famously served as a liaison between Rochambeau and Washington during the summer of 1780. Although never proven, plans of the final assault against the British in the Battle of Yorktown are said to have been made in Newport’s Vernon House where Rochambeau was headquartered from 1780 to 1781. (Situated on the northeast corner of Clark and Mary Streets – a mere couple of blocks from Washington Square, the center of Newport in the colonial days.) Vernon House’s lovely patinaed plaques mark the historic site.
And in true Newport style, George Washington’s week-long visit with Rochambeau (commencing on March 6, 1781) – featuring a procession, dinner, ball and illumination of the city – has become one of the most chronicled events in Newport’s history.
As I mull over President François Hollande’s statement, calling L’Hermione’s voyage a “historic journey of friendship,” I think of France’s involvement in turning the tides during the Revolutionary War. I think of Lafayette and his incredible will at such a young age to help the cause. As the Marquis de Lafayette’s family motto states, “Cur non?” “Why not?” Nothing is ever impossible.